The Architect's Blog

What You Should Know Before Submitting Building Plans

You love the new design for your home or business, the construction drawings are done.  The 3D fly-thru model that we created for you is so compelling that you wonder why you even need to submit drawings at all. We’re ahead of schedule, preliminary budget numbers from our trusted contractors came back favorably, and now you’re getting anxious to start construction. There is just one more thing: authorities having jurisdiction.

Whether it’s the City Planning and Building Department or a Homeowners’ Association, the Coastal Commission or historic preservation department, the plan review process can add cost, time and frustration, especially if the project is complex, located on a sensitive site (historic, views, coastal, ecological etc.) or the client has expectations inconsistent with the authorities’ mandates.

As an example, some of our restaurant tenant improvements have required approval from as many as 8 different agencies. Construction could not begin until we had satisfied all the requirements of all of the agencies. We’ve also had projects in historic districts that have been delayed by more than 2 months due to required reviews and committee meetings.  On other projects, significant design provisions were required to make the project comply with Coastal Commission & view requirements.

Though there can be many hurdles to gaining approval on a project, one of the comments that many of our clients make, is that they are surprised at how easily we are able to establish a good working relationship with the “authority” and move their project through the agencies that had previously seemed hostile or inflexible. I believe the secret to our success – in addition to having a good reputation, is that we do our best to identify the final decision maker and then help them to relate to the needs of our clients.

While cities and other authorities have good reason for many of the regulations they come up with, there are many regulations that they haven’t fully considered the implications of and/or aren’t really sure why they were created to begin with.

It is easy for a lower level staff to see our clients as just another customer to whom they can quote code requirements and then dismiss – but all authorities are ultimately made up of individuals, and individuals can be pretty reasonable, especially when they feel that they can relate.

One of the most effective ways of shedding light on a restriction that can reasonably be seen as onerous is to let the authority in on the potential impact of the rule.  For example, I’ll ask if I’m supposed to tell Mr. & Mrs. X that they can’t afford to re-do their bathroom because their money will be tied up, due to a large “waste recycling deposit”?  (This has actually happened and the city has since reduced this deposit to 1/3 the amount).

Similarly, when an authority interrupts a company’s ability to be profitable by impeding business for minor violations or taking too long to provide approvals, it is usually because the authority isn’t clearly aware of the impact of their actions.  Once again, we find it very useful to convey the impact to the authority.  In one instance, an owner of an indoor sports facility had added extra courts yet had neglected to mention this to the city.  When the owner was cited during a routine inspection, we were able to keep the business open – penalty free – while we quickly addressed the repairs by appealing to the city’s interest in maintaining a business friendly reputation.

Though addressing these agencies can be challenging or frustrating, we have found that with the right mix of knowledge, persistence and realistic expectation on both sides, the plan review process can move smoothly, especially when all parties are seeing the big picture.

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